Kim Bu-jeon has lived on Yeonpyeong Island her entire life, but is still not used to the pounding explosions from nearby military drills that rattle her single-level, red brick home in this tiny fishing community that lies less than 10 kilometers from North Korean territory.
“Our military is shooting today – why?” asks the 97-year-old Kim as she leans against the railing of her front porch and bats away flies feasting on a row of silver croaker fish laid out to dry.
Before and after she spoke, muffled booms could be heard in the distance.
“I’m worried when we shoot. I’m worried when North Korea shoots. I’m worried about it all,” she said.
The residents of Yeonpyeong Island, which is half military outpost and half sleepy fishing village, are especially nervous these days. Relations between North and South Korea are at their worst point in years, with the North launching a record number of missiles and the South increasing its own military drills in response.
Although most South Koreans do not stress over inter-Korean tensions, which have risen and fallen for decades, Yeonpyeong residents have little choice. In nearby waters, North and South Korea exchanged warning shots last month, after a North Korean ship crossed a disputed sea border. When VOA visited this week, a South Korean navy ship stood watch near the Yeonpyeong port and was easily visible as residents and soldiers arrived by ferry, the only way to reach the remote outpost.
For some, the situation recalls memories of 2010, when North Korea fired more than 170 shells at Yeonpyeong Island, killing four people, including two civilians. It was the first time North Korea had shelled South Korean territory since the 1950-53 Korean War.
With the two Koreas again exchanging threats, the island’s mostly elderly residents are concerned, especially after local media reported last week that North Korea appeared to at least partially open the doors of two artillery tunnels on the coastline across from Yeonpyeong, in violation of a 2018 inter-Korean agreement meant to reduce military tensions.
“Yeah, I’m worried. Who wouldn’t worry? I can hear shots all around here,” said Kim Jae-hyun, an 85-year-old man sitting outside a community center about 20 meters from a bunker meant to protect residents in the case of a North Korean attack.
Locals report hearing more artillery fire in recent weeks, although it’s not always clear where the sounds originate. Some residents speculate they come from North Korean artillery cannons; others guess it is South Korea’s military conducting target practice; still others say the shots are meant to warn off Chinese boats that fish illegally in waters near the island. A South Korean military official posted on the island refused to comment on the source of the explosions.
It is certain, though, that the explosions complicate the livelihoods of Yeonpyeong residents, most of whom rely on the blue crabs and oysters caught in the surrounding waters. When North Korea fires weapons, the South Korean military designates the waters a military zone and forces fishing boats to leave. That has happened five times this year, said Cha Jae-geun, who heads a local society of fishermen.
In Cha’s view, the situation has worsened since South Korea’s conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, was inaugurated in May. Yoon has taken a much more assertive stance against North Korea than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in.
“I know people have different [political] opinions, but I feel this issue,” said Cha. “In the end, we fishermen are the ones that lose.”
South Korea’s government says its drills are a justified response to North Korean provocations. North Korea has also characterized its weapons tests as defensive, even as it becomes more explicitly aggressive toward the South. Many analysts say North Korea appears intent on creating a sense of crisis, possibly to force the United States, South Korea’s ally, to negotiate on Pyongyang’s terms.
Many in Yeonpyeong express unease about this dynamic, fearing a deadly miscalculation. The fears are not just hypothetical. Kim, the 97-year-old, became emotional as she recalled fleeing to her neighbor’s home during the 2010 attack, only to have North Korean shells fall on that house.
“What if North Korea thinks we are firing at them and strikes us again?” she asked.
In the 12 years since the shelling, nearly all signs of the North Korean attack have disappeared. One exception is a simple streetside memorial on a hilltop near a small military outpost. Beneath the memorial is a meterwide crater, where a South Korean marine was killed by a North Korean shell.
No one in Yeonpyeong needs to be reminded of the danger – something they’ve lived with for decades. “I am old. When I die, I die. If I live, I live,” said Kim. “What I’m worried about is my children.”
Kim Hyungjin contributed to this report.